WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) – Deadly jihadist attacks inspired by a group calling themselves the Islamic State are spreading across the globe and dominating headlines.
What remains unclear, however, more than a decade into its ruthless and bloody ascent, is the group’s name.
President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have juggled the terms “ISIS,” “ISIL” and, recently, “Daesh.” Several newspapers also use “Islamic State.”
While politicians and reporters employ the monikers interchangeably, experts say significant and consequential meanings underlie the four deviations.
We spoke to Georgetown University Arab studies professors Dr. Rochelle Davis and Dr. Jonathan Brown to untangle the complex knot of names.
Members of the terror group holding land in the Middle East and taking lives across the world prefer to be called the “Islamic State” for two reasons.
First, Islamic State is short and memorable.
Second, and more importantly, members enjoy the prestige bestowed by a title putting it on par with legitimately recognized nations like the United States of America, France, and others which have fallen into the group’s crosshairs.
Dr. Davis explains that members are engaged in PR 101 — control the message. By standardizing the use of “Islamic State,” Davis says the words “become loaded with other kinds of meaning and people try to enforce a certain way of talking about them” in the public square.
The most common of names for the radical group is ISIS, which can be translated two ways: Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.
The important thing to remember is that in this case, Syria and al-Sham are interchangeable, since Syria doesn’t refer to the discrete country drawn on modern maps.
“In Arabic there this term ‘Sham’ … what today be Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon,” clarified Dr. Jonathan Brown.
That large area east of the Mediterranean is geographically fuzzy, but historically intertwined. And that harking back is the whole point.
Davis explains, “The ambiguity of [al-Sham] goes back to what they want the ambiguity to be in nation state terms; they want it to be pre-contemporary times,” explains Davis.
The Obama administration has consistently used the term ISIL, which is shorthand for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Contrary to popular thought, the Levant is not Arabic or found in the Quran. In fact, Levant is a French word.
Davis calls it “an old, old word” that predates modern civilization and simply “refers to the area east of the Mediterranean that stops at the Iraqi desert.”
Daesh, or Da’esh, is a term thousands of years younger than al-Sham.
In response to Islamist extremists ripping apart their country, experts say creating the term allows Syrians to passively belittle the terrorists.
Here’s why: In Arabic, “People do not say USA or U.N.,” Brown explains. Instead, states are given the respect of a full recitation of their names.
If a group does use an acronym, the term usually invokes a similar word rich in meaning. For instance, Hamas is an acronym that closely resembles the word passion in Arabic.
For Daesh, that’s not the case. It’s gibberish.
Dr. Brown says, “Imagine if you feel like, ‘We’re the Islamic State’ and making this statement, and then everyone just calls you Daesh, which is not even a word in Arabic — it’s just this weird sounding thing — I imagine they’re probably annoyed that they’re not being referred to like a state.”
Khaled al-Haj Salih of Syria is credited with coining “Daesh” in 2013, according to Dr. Davis. Salih and others risk their lives by merely uttering the word “Daesh,” because radicals, “pretty much kill anyone who they feel undermines them or threatens them,” says Davis.
In recent weeks, President Obama, Secretary Kerry and French President Francois Hollande have begun publicly referring to the group as Daesh.
In this case, the war of words goes deep. To capture the hearts and minds of at-risk youth, radicals must appear strong and legitimate — and world leaders are hellbent on robbing them of respect at every turn.